Zach Marpe

How I transitioned from a runner to a writer to a Peace Corps insider

BY Zach Marpe ’17

If people had told me in 2013 I would be a Peace Corps volunteer, I probably would have wondered who was crazier: them or future me. I started college majoring in English and Spanish and had high hopes for changing the lives of young people through a love of literature and language. I also ran cross country, and eventually track and field, but mostly, I was just exploring the vastness of my huge new world.

I grew up in Lake Mills, Iowa, a small town of about 2,500 residents. In high school, I was the newspaper writer, the star athlete, the teachers’ pet, and just about every other title in-between.  Coming to Wartburg showed me how much growing I still had to do.

I enjoyed my first few humanities courses, and I even started to feel like Wartburg was the place I’d always call home, a sensation that signals a person has picked the right college or university for himself or herself, I suppose. I invested much more in my academic studies than I had in high school and found that it was entirely to my benefit and pleasure, since I rarely had a class that I didn’t enjoy. I also surprised myself by pursuing a Spanish major, as I hadn’t necessarily intended to when I registered for classes but just felt it was the right course of action for me to take. And am I ever glad that I did!

I studied in Costa Rica the summer after my freshman year, and I think my only regret from college is that I switched my Spanish major to a minor so that I wouldn’t have to spend an entire semester abroad. I cannot express how incredible my experience in Costa Rica was, thanks to all the assistance and encouragement the staff at Wartburg provided me. I strengthened my language skills and cultural awareness and was forced out of my comfort zone in a major way for the first time in my life. No words or pictures I use will ever truly convey the beauty of those three weeks.

Costa Rica (Submitted by Zach Marpe)
Costa Rica (Submitted by Zach Marpe)

I fell in love with running during my sophomore year at Wartburg, and it was toward the end of the school year in 2015 that I realized I wanted to pursue it after college. I decided to change my major and start over from scratch, because why not at a college where any endeavor is not just a dream but also a real possibility?

I juggled my newly inspired passions among work, school, and running (which were often indistinguishable) over the next year, but it was in my devotion to all three that I developed a form of depression. College students across the country experience mental health crises every year, so it’s no wonder that the stress I placed upon myself bloomed into this new experience.

However, depression, like any other seeming obstacle, was and is not a deal-breaker at Wartburg.  The outlets and services on campus provided me with the tools to reclaim my inner peace, and though it became especially difficult when my grandfather passed away my junior year, it was partially because I was at Wartburg that I was able to still find hope.

Zach Marpe
Zach Marpe and his grandfather

In reclaiming my inner peace, I also had to redefine myself. I returned to where I had started as a freshman; for the third time, I changed my major. I found my home in the humanities once again, this time as a senior English major with no time left to pick up where I had left off in the education department. I didn’t know what I could do with my major after graduation, but as usual, Wartburg had an answer.

When I asked what I could do with an English major and an open heart, my professors offered me several options: I could go to grad school, I could become a technical writer, or I could become just about any other random person (flight attendant, entrepreneur, insurance salesman) that I wanted to. Or I could join the Peace Corps.

To be honest, I didn’t even really know what the Peace Corps was until Dr. Joyce Boss, an English professor, explained it to me in September of my senior year. I thought it sounded like a quality back-up option, and I submitted my application while continuing to focus on pursuing a master’s program in poetry writing.

As the fall semester ended, however, I found that I wasn’t as certain about continuing my formal education as I had thought I was, and though my writing was stronger and more passionate than it had ever been before, I eventually opted not to continue pursuing a master’s in poetry. I still had a passionate desire to connect to, care for, and help others, and I still had an undying love for language and its power in literature. And I still had experience with teaching, speaking and reading Spanish, and spending time abroad.

As I prepared for my interview with the Peace Corps recruiter, I fell in love with the program and everything for which it stood. I felt as if I was already a part of the program in my heart, and I knew that it was the purpose I had been trying to find for myself for over a year. I could not wait to be in Nicaragua, and I had minimal doubt that Wartburg had given me all I needed to be chosen for service to the country.

My journey at Wartburg had the joyous ending it deserved as I soon found that I would be calling the Peace Corps and Nicaragua my home after graduation. I had been everything from an athlete to an academic, and even a mental health advocate, in my short time at Wartburg, and I traveled more unexpected roads in that time than I ever traveled those I anticipated, but there was not a more satisfying or humbling way I could have prepared myself for my life to come and matured into a successful young man full of hope. I cannot thank all the people who have influenced me at Wartburg enough, and I cannot wait to come back and share my memories with everyone when I return from Central America.

Zach Marpe